Updated: Apr 6, 2022
As a writer actively engaged in my community, when something happens that stirs my social sensibilities, I ponder what can I write that will postively impact the situation? To often I decide that much of how I feel has already been articulated with more profundity than I can add, and I move on. However, since attending a local agency meeting in my hometown, that question has haunted me.
After 18 months, my local school board was finally prepared to vote on implementing the recommendations of its Equity Task Force that advocated fairness and justice for historically marginalized groups. As the grandmother and great aunt to college and school age children, I felt compelled to attend the meeting. I believed the educators and others who'd committed to creating solutions to education inequities with a plan despite the objections of a few, very loud consituents, needed support.
I've been around a long time and know what systemic racism in education looks like. More importantly, I know what exclusion practices based on sterotypes and a false sense of entitlement, feel like. Needless to say, I was happy and proud that my local school board, determined to address the complex, centuries-old issue of instituional racism, now had a plan that includes short- and long-term action steps to provide high levels of academic success by honoring and valuing all members of our community.
Before the meeting, I actually read the posted Equity Impact Action Plan that was up for the school board vote. And while I understood from that reading that teaching CRT (Critical Race Theory) or any other specific curriculum details, for that matter, were not in this plan designed to address administrative systemic racist behaviors in our schools, I found myself, 1) in disbelief that what was clearly stated in the plan was wildly misrepresented in the comments; and 2)disheartened that so many of my neighbors were satisfied with the status quo, and didn't want the system to ensure equitable access to education. This was made evident to me when I heard statements like:
"We should move forward and teach our kids love and not dividing them with history."
"Equality and equity are not the same. You can't have both."
"I don't want my kids hearing words like privilege and oppression."
"CRT is going to make my kids experience "shaming" for being white."
I sat listening, my heartbeat racing, my inner voice screaming that this plan was not about CRT. Then I thought, what if it were? Had the speaker who suggested that now was not the time to expose their children to a non-prettified and falsified version of American history considered the position of blacks who have been shamed and disrespected for their skin color forever in this country? And what about immigrants? The manipulation of immigrants remains a ploy to keep us pitted against each other for government services and recognition. Native Americans were conquered, oppressed, and continue to be denied the rights awarded in treaties while the history books teach that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Did these parents care how black and brown kids will feel should that be talked about in history lessons that already minimize or completely ignore the sacrifices and contributions of all marginalized groups.
I thought, how in 2022, can anyone suggest that teaching history and the role of civic responsibility will deny any human being the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness following: the George Floyd reckoning; the-threat to democracy demonstrated at the January 6 inssurrection; and the fear of furthering the advancement of the authoritarian cause, evident by the current war in Ukraine? What in the world can I, or any writer, say that will change the hearts and minds of those who are content to ignore data that proves that the if-they-get-something-I-lose-something mentality fails everyone, including them?
It is denial and history ignorance that perpetuates racial subjugation, and racial subjugation is a power-grabbing tactic used against democracy, unfortunately, with the support of those a government of, by and for the people is supposed to protect. What can I, or any writer, say to show we cannot wish away the existence of structural racism if white people aren't willing to acknowledge and carry their part of the heavy burden racism has put on all our shoulders?
Then I thought of my immediate family. Whenever we sit for a family meal, there are descendants of slaves, slave owners and the Holocaust-Christians, Jews, Muslims, as well athesisats, all at the table. When we celebrate a birthday, a graduation, or any personal achievement, there are whites, blacks, and browns in attendance.
I recalled the look of innocence and pride on my seven-year old white granddaughter's face when another kid she'd met on the Santa Cruz beach asked her if I was her grandmother.
She replied, her tone matter of fact, "Yes, I have two grandmothers, a brown one and a beige one."
I thought about the conversation we had with our grandsons and nephews about interacting with the police. That talk and the history we gave to explain why it was necessary for them to be on guard, forged a protective, brotherly bond between the black and white male cousins that has informed and enriched their lives.
Because my white grandchildren were interested in learning more than the paragraph in their history books about slavery, we focused a lot of our family time on answering questions about our country's past. Together, we explored our increased awareness of how our painful legacies correlate with the present and its impending impact on the future. And contrary to the notion such reflection would result in "white shaming" it resulted in self-knowledge and personal growth.
Don't get me wrong. Those conversations were not easy. Anger and pain filled my voice when I told the story about the time a white woman called me nigger when I sat next to her on public bus to keep passengers from stepping on my seriously burned foot. It hurt like hell to hear my white grandson say he struggled in school because he called out a teacher for making a remark he knew not to be true about his black relatives. Yet those painful, honest, thorough conversations enabled our family as well as our indivdual selves to refine our perspective on how slavery and its outgrowth--racism--continues to affect the wishful insinuation that no harm was done. Instead, our family's takeaway is that we cannot change the past, only learn from it.
Therefore, it wasn't out of the ordinary when my Muslim niece invited her Jewish co-worker to our family Sedar. Or when my Christian grandaughter described in a school essay that the traditional, Aqiqah, the Muslim baby-naming ceremony, is the most beautiful, heartwarming religious ceremony she'd ever witnessed. In our family, it would be unnatural for any of our kids to miss trimming the family Christmas tree, baking cookies and singing Christmas carols.
Denying students our historical truths, the good, bad and ugly, threatens not only to leave them unprepared to function or thrive in a diverse society, but also denies them the crtical opportunity of self-discovery, to figure out for themselves, who they are and how they fit, in a family, a community, in the world. This self-knowledge, I've learned from my family members over the years, has resulted in each of them defining who they are, thereby, developing and thriving comfortable in his/her own skin.
I recently read an article where black teens interviewed said their needs and preferances routinely go unnoticed, from censoring curriculum to elminating COVID safeguards in schools. If I'm to be honest, I must disclose that those sentiments emerged as I listened to white parents talk about the implications of teaching the whole truth to their children as if black and brown kids don't go to school.
The foundation of my civic engagement is my belief that a good public policy or laws may not give one group everything they want, but every group something they need. This outcome is impossible unless everyone is represented and everyone's needs are considered in issue-solving plans. The Equity Impact statement voted and approved by my local school board does address the needs of all students. The most important being that all students need to not only learn reading, writing and arithmetic, but critical thinking skills, that is, the ability to receive and decipher information in order to make choices. Leaving out facts and truth about our shared history from the education process eliminates the ability of all students to make important life choices and that strips away all of our freedom.
As I processed the vitriol and ugliness of my neighbors grappling with accepting change under the guise that treating black and brown students fairly meant subjecting white students to self loathing, I am grateful my family dynamic gave me a different perspective, another point of view that influenced my choice to support the new school policy. I remembered that when we face the unpleasant, scary stuff head on together, our collective courage is the best way to overpower our individual ignorance and fear. The best way to weigh all sides and figure out what matters to each of us. The clearest lens to recognize the failings and frailty of human nature regardless of ethnicity or religion.
I allowed our family motto: if the rest of the world was like us, it would be a better place, to propel me not wait to read how profound other writers address this moment, but to write my family's story, and share what I know from personal experience to be true, that it is easier to be respectful of the dignity and humanity of all mankind when you walk through life confident and determined to be the best you can be, always mindful that all men and women are created equal.